I was asked a question last night - what was it I found in Britain that was different from what I expected? I can’t say there’s much of anything I am truly surprised about - except perhaps that pubs really are a central feature of the British culture, and far different than the bars of America. (More on pubs later.)
The British and the American cultures are very much alike - more than I had imagined. Some quick observations:
Besides the well known fact that the Brits drive on the left side of the road, I also have found they are not as much of a car culture as ours is. Wondering why I saw far fewer overweight people here than in America, I began to realize the small city of Sittingbourne, where we are staying, makes walking easy. Need to go to the train station for the commute into London? Its an easy ten minute walk. Going to church? Easy ten minute walk. Need a quick something at the grocery store? Yeah - its an easy ten minute walk. The streets are narrow and that discourages driving big cars - in fact, it discourages driving. Parking is at a premium - and walking is easy.
If you ever wonder why Britain does not get rid of its monarchy, one of the most observable reasons is tourism - London is packed with tourists - and we weren’t even here in the peak season. Walking near Buckingham Palace places you in a veritable Tower of Babel - Chinese, French, German, Japanese - plus I few languages I couldn't figure out. People all want to come to London to see ceremony as only the Brits can do it. Besides the fact that he was obviously keeping an eye on me, I was to learn that the troops guarding the queen and government are regular soldiers, not members of special ceremonial units. This young solder may well have been in Afghanistan a few months ago.
Like many countries, there is a distinct difference between city and countryside. Sittingbourne’s easy train connection to London makes it a bedroom community - think Long Island in America. London is full of immigrants from many different countries. I laughed when I heard that some people consider curry to be the English national food. The Indian cuisine is ubiquitous. Maybe there is some sort of cosmic payback for colonization, eh? But the countryside has few people of color (or colour, as it is spelled here). I saw a few black faces in church and school and there is an Indian curry restaurant or two in Sittingbourne, but for the most part, the city is very white.
Great Britain really is a land of castles - lots of them - most very old. A case can be made for the argument that says if you have seen one castle, you have seen them all, yet there were distinct differences between the Leed’s Castle and the one overlooking the white cliffs of Dover. Most of them are maintained by some sort of trust, either a government operation or a private one dedicated to preserving the buildings and the grounds. Dover was doubly interesting because of its use during World War II. Underground tunnels once held a hospital (very interesting to Cindy as a former combat nurse), the war rooms used by Sir Winston Churchill and deep underground tunnels created to shelter the government in the event of a nuclear attack during the Cold War.
But I wonder about the gorgeous little countryside churches seen throughout County Kent. We went to a choral concert last night at a church whose first clergy was assigned to shepherd the flock in the year 1314. I don’t know how old the building was, but I’m sure it would have been built about the same time. The average Sunday attendance is now measured in the teens and most worshipers are elderly. Knowing they are owned by the Diocese of Canterbury, I assume the resources probably don’t exist to maintain them all. I wonder what will happen to these living museums once the current parishioners die off.
Great Britain is on a fairly small island - that’s why roads are narrow and all the houses are two stories. Villages are close together. Being in the countryside at Dover, I was quite surprised to climb atop one landmark and look down upon the port of Dover - a very busy place where ferries docked, disgorging themselves of the cars, buses, trucks and people who were in France an hour ago. Our host told me it is not uncommon for Brits to get in their car, drive through either the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) or take the ferry across, have dinner in Paris, then return home that same day.
Our time in England is drawing to a close, but this has been a jammed-packed trip, filled with more than I have time to write about now. But - there is more to come when we get back home.